The Best Of Ireland Awards

Yesterday marked one year since we arrived in Ireland. ONE YEAR! I can’t believe how fast this year has gone…and yet, at the same time, it feels like we have lived here forever. We have been to more places, seen more things, met more people, tried more food and experienced more in this year than at any other time in our lives.

People often ask me what the best part of Ireland is and, the answer is, there are many “bests”. There is no way I could possibly limit my favorites down to one thing. So I won’t even try. What I will do, however, is offer you a compilation of the best things we’ve actually experienced here in Ireland. I now present to you:

The Best of Ireland Awards (According to me, of course!)

Best Natural Site: The Cliffs of Moher
IMG_2049I can’t think of anything more spectacular than moss-covered cliffs that plunge 400 feet into the ocean. They’re seriously amazing.

Best Museum: Titanic Belfast
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OK, so for starters, the museum is in the actual shipping yard where Titanic was built and the front of the building is a scale replica of the size of the great ship’s hull. The exhibits are fascinating, there is an amusement park-style ride that takes you through the ship building process, and the cafe serves scones on White Star Line china. What’s not to love?

Best Monument/Historical Site: Newgrange
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Probably the oldest building you’ll ever see (it’s 5,000 years old, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids). Just don’t take your kids with you or you might get kicked out for unruly behavior.

Best Holiday Celebrate In Ireland: St. Patrick’s Day

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If you thought the St.Patrick’s Day parade in your town was fun, then wait until you see how Ireland celebrates! St. Patrick’s Day is definitely the most festive holiday we’ve been a part of here.

Best Time To Visit Ireland: Easter Week
IMG_2496The flowers are blooming, the sun is starting to find its way out of winter hibernation, and the towns are starting to come back to life. Easter falls right at the beginning of the official Irish tourist season, so shops and museums that have been closed for the winter will again welcome you in–plus the crowds won’t arrive for another month or two. There are lots of special activities and festivals throughout the country during Holy Week, making this the perfect time to visit.

Best Castle to Explore: King John’s Castle, Limerick

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I’m a self-professed castle-holic, as you will know if you’ve read this blog for any length of time. We have seen a LOT of castles here in Ireland. It’s hard to chose just one favorite castle, but I’m going to have to give this award out to King John’s for their fabulous renovations and hands-on exhibits. I mean, where else will you get to dress up like a knight in shining armor…in a REAL medieval castle?!

Best Irish Food: Scones
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I’m obsessed with scones, so this is no surprise. They’re just the best thing ever. Period.

Best Irish Drink: Barry’s Tea
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Barry’s Tea will forever be that taste that reminds me of Ireland. On my last trip to the grocery store I bought a giant box of Barry’s Tea with enough tea to last me through the apocalypse (or at least until the next time I make it back to Ireland).

Best Place Off The Beaten Path: Ballycotton Cliff Walk
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This cliffside walk is one of the most beautiful, most peaceful places I’ve ever been. The views are incredible, and every corner you turn takes a bit more of  your breath away. Truly spectacular. Also, for the first time in nearly 180 years, this year they are allowing the public to tour Ballycotton Island and lighthouse (via a guided boat ride and tour). I can only imagine how stunning the views must be looking back at the cliffs from the picturesque island.

Best Chipper: K.C. & Son & Sons, Douglas (Cork)
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There’s a reason why hundreds of people queue up outside K.C.’s each night: it’s dang good food. K.C.’s has the right mix of juicy, greasy, succulent-ness that you expect from a good burger or pile of fish and chips.

Best Farmer’s Market: Mahon Point (Cork)
IMG_1486This weekly farmer’s market is one of the best-run public markets I’ve ever been to. All of the food is fresh and local, sold by the farmers who produce it–and everything is incredible. Fresh cheese, home-baked bread, crisp veggies, straight-from-the-farm meats and fresh-from-the-sea fish–anything you could ever want for your weekly shopping. Plus they have woodfired pizzas and what I lovingly refer to as “crack curry” because it’s just so addictive.  Nom nom nom…

Best Scenic Drive: The Ring of Kerry
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Seeing as The Ring of Kerry is on every tourist’s agenda,  this choice is a bit cliché. But it really is incredible, and every tourist to Ireland should see it at least once. Driving The Ring takes you through mountains and valleys, past lakes and waterfalls, and along sweeping ocean cliffs. There are countless hikes that you can take just off the main road if you want to explore a bit more of the beauty, or you can just stay in your car and take it all in.

Most Unique Irish Experience: Bunratty Castle Medieval Banquet

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This was one of our family’s favorite experiences–my kids still talk about our dinner in the castle and ask when we can go back ther. Picture this: you arrive at a medieval castle and are greeted by people dressed in medieval costumes. These people then serve you bottomless wine, feed you a meal fit for a king, and serenade you with music. Did I mention you’re in a REAL castle?! Did I mention there was wine?!

Best Bike and Foot Trail System: Cork Bay Railway Walk

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This is a rails-to-trails system that follows the bay from Cork city out to a town called Passage West. There is an entrance to the trail right down the hill from our house, so we have spent many, many hours exploring these waterfront miles. The trail even goes directly to Jon’s office, allowing him to walk home from work on a peaceful trail when he wants a break from the usual commute. One section of the trail also leads to Blackrock Castle and cafe, the perfect place to stop in for some lunch or tea while you’re out exploring

Best Stone to Kiss: The Blarney Stone

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Some say that the Blarney Stone will give you the “gift of gab”. I think it may just give you canker sores and a strained neck, but it’s still worth giving a little smooch.

Best Big City to Explore: Dublin
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Everyone from Cork has just stopped reading this blog as I have pronounced heresy. Sorry, Rebels, but Dublin IS bigger and it’s my pick for city explorations. Take your pick of museums, cathedrals, pubs and parks–as well as trendy restaurants and upscale shopping. If you’re looking for a big city in Ireland, this is it!

Best Festival: Youghal Medieval Festival
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A medieval festival in an actual walled medieval city. Need I say more?

Best Island: The Great Blasket Islands
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This was one of my favorite day trips that we took in Ireland. A somewhat crazy boat ride takes you out to an ancient island that was finally abandoned half a century ago. We spent our day on the island exploring ruins, climbing grassy hills, and frolicking on sandy beaches with hundreds of basking seals. I would go back there in a heartbeat.

I could go on and on about all of my favorite things in Ireland, but I’ll show a wee bit of restraint and stop myself there. Ireland is an amazing place–an amazing place that I have been fortunate enough to experience for one whole year.  You will always be near and dear to my heart, Ireland!

 

 

 

 

Castledaly Manor Retreat

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Now that the clock is officially ticking down our last days in Ireland, I’m starting to feel the pressure: the pressure to organize and pack and make appointments and settle accounts and say goodbyes. It’s crunch time, yet I’m still in a bit of denial about the whole “I only have 3 weeks left in Ireland” thing. It was wonderful, then, to escape last weekend for some much-needed respite. Our church was taking a retreat in Castledaly, a “town” (there are only a couple of houses and a shop, so I don’t know exactly what to call it) near Athlone right in the middle of Ireland. Since Jon is still in Korea I was a bit nervous to go alone with the boys–but then I heard that there would be babysitters available. That was all the convincing I needed, so we loaded up the car for our last Irish weekend getaway.

We left Cork early Friday morning so we could spend the day in Dublin before meeting up with our friends in Castledaly. Friday happened to be the 4th of July, American Independence Day. Not surprisingly, in Ireland there are no community parades or firework shows on July 4th. And, even though we were the only ones celebrating here, we still dressed in our red, white and blue with pride.

I decided that we needed to do something special to celebrate the 4th of July. Something American.  And there is nothing more American (nay, anything more Seattle) than good ‘ol Starbucks. So, on our way out of town we stopped by the only Starbucks in southern Ireland for some hot chocolates.
IMG_6634With our tummies happy, we were ready for the road. We arrived in Dublin at about lunch time, so we stopped by Avoca on our way into town. Avoca is a foodie paradise, a bit like a gourmet cookery shop meets country farm shop. The store downstairs sells everything from kitchen gadgets to specialty foods to handmade charcuterie from their on-site butcher. Upstairs there are two cafes that offer all sorts of mouthwatering nummy-ness. We all enjoyed a tasty lunch–that is, after tripping people with my stroller on three separate occasions, having David nearly lock himself in a bathroom, spilling a tray of food and breaking a glass bottle of lemonade, and calming Jacob down from a minor meltdown over a dropped M&M. I’m pretty sure they won’t be inviting us back to Avoca any time soon, so I’m glad I got to enjoy at least one meal there.

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The whole drive up to Dublin I’d been holding out hope that the incessant rain would let up a bit so we could spend the afternoon at the Dublin Zoo. Unfortunately the weather had other plans, so I had to change mine. I have made a pact with myself that, whenever I have the kids with me, I must choose the easier option. Not the thing I want to do, but the easier thing. In this particular case, dragging two already-tried boys through the zoo in a rain storm was not the easy option. Thankfully, I had a Plan B: the Dublin Imaginosity Children’s Museum.

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Thankfully, the children’s museum was wonderful and the boys loved every minute of it. We spent several hours playing in the an post (post office), the supermarket, the restaurant, the bakery, the doctor’s office, the construction zone, the T.V. station, and the costume stage. We also played with toy trains and climbed a 3-story tall rocket ship jungle gym. The rain even stopped for a good 15 minutes so we could check out the rooftop garden:

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After our fun afternoon at the children’s museum it was time to continue our drive out to Castledaly, about an hour west of Dublin. Our final destination was Castledaly Manor, a gorgeous 18th century manor house.

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Up until a few years ago, the house was being used as a posh hotel. Now the house is owned by Bible Centered Ministries, an international Christian ministry that focuses on reaching out to children and developing churches. They also host camps and church groups at Castledaly Manor, which is how we came to stay there.

Now, I’ve been to my fair share of church camps and retreats–and most of them involve sleeping on a worn out mattress in your sleeping bag  and eating reheated food from a can. Castledaly Manor could not be further from that church camp stereotype. The “house” (what do you call a mansion with 25 bedrooms?) is set in an idyllic country setting. The absolute peacefulness of the area is what struck me first. The kids, on the other hand, were taken with the slides that were built into the hills…IMG_6712

…and the tire swings hanging from centuries-old trees

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…and the swings in the gardens
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…and the fields to play frisbee inIMG_6777

…and the secret gardens to discoverIMG_6804

…and the pitches for playing soccerIMG_6805

…and the ponds for throwing rocks.IMG_6858

The house itself was incredible. It was built in 1780, which makes it the same age as the United States of America (ironic, since we arrived here on the 4th of July!). The interior was luxurious with marble fireplaces, grand staircases and picturesque window seats. They were even kind enough to include four-poster beds for the children to jump on.

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There was a huge industrial kitchen where we prepared our meals (and by we, I mean the few brave souls who are, in my mind, miracle workers). Keeping with the “living like kings” theme of the weekend, we dined like royalty. Every meal was incredible and everything was homemade (including the best salsa I’ve had in Ireland. Hands down.).

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Our food was served in the grand dining room (Jacob is the only one in this photo because we were the only ones up at 6 AM eating our breakfast. Sigh…).IMG_6744

There were also beautiful sitting rooms where we could relax and hang out together:

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Perhaps my favorite part of the house, however, was this huge window at the landing of the grand staircase. All I could think about every time I saw it was, “how much would it cost to replace this thing if my kids throw a ball through it?”.

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Every morning and evening we gathered for prayer, worship and teaching. This weekend our theme was “Jesus is greater” and we went through Matthew 12 where Jesus declares himself to be greater than three things (the temple, Jonah, and King Solomon, if you want the Cliff’s Notes version of the teaching). It was a rich time of teaching, learning and reflecting.

While we grown ups were busy doing our grown-uppy things, the kids went off to “kids camp” in another part of the house.  An amazing group from a church in Dublin came over just to watch our kids and help us out for the weekend. The kids had a wonderful time playing games, reading Bible stories and making crafts with their new friends from Dublin. They even took our kids outside to play in the afternoon so we parents could have a little time to ourselves. It was pretty much the best thing a parent could ever wish for.

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At night time we put the kids to bed and then had a little more fun (shhh, don’t tell the kids that we actually have fun after they go to bed or they may never go to bed again). On Saturday we had a table quiz night. Each round had trivia questions or activities we had to complete in a set amount of time–and it all ended with some rousing renditions of popular songs being performed with–ahem–gusto. We were having so much fun that I didn’t even mind being up past midnight (well, at least I didn’t mind until 6:00 the next morning when Jacob decided it was a good time to start our day).

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After three days of playing, resting, learning, eating, visiting, exploring and enjoying it was time to say goodbye to Castledaly Manor. I would have been happy staying there for a few more weeks, but it was time to head back to reality.

Since the manor is out in the middle of nearly-nowhere, there was no cell phone or internet connection available outside of one room in the house that had a wifi hot spot. So, I went into the wifi room and set my GPS for “home”, and we started driving. I got about half an hour away from the manor when my GPS decided it was tired of trying to think without direct access to a satellite, and the screen went blank. I had no idea where I was, and all I could see were cows and grass and bushes and the empty little one-lane road I was driving on.

I had paper maps in my car that had never been opened because I rely on technology too much and don’t really know how to properly read a map. So, I opened the map and realized that “middle of nearly-nowhere” was not on it. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to find my way all the way back to the manor through the windy country roads, so I just decided to keep driving. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew it was somewhere (or, at least, would eventually be somewhere). I finally got to an intersection that had a road sign (Good! There are places somewhere!). One of the towns listed on the sign was not on my map, but the other one was. I decided to drive toward “place on my map”–and it worked!

As soon as I got to the “place” my GPS made contact with her satellite again and we were back in business. I would have loved to stay and explore the town we were in, called Birr, as there was a HUGE castle and a quaint town center. I couldn’t convince the boys to get out of the car, though, so we kept driving (with my SatNav happily refreshed!):

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The next town we came to was called Roscrea and, again, there was a huge castle and all sorts of fascinating ruins to explore. The boys still wanted to sit and smash Cheerio’s into their car seats, so I just parked the car outside an old church and snapped a few quick photos. I love the juxtaposition of this scene: a 1,000 year old round tower and church facade with a Tesco grocery store in the background. It’s just so…Ireland.

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Shortly after leaving Roscrea we connected with the motorway and we made it back home in time for dinner.We had a great time at our little retreat, and I’m so glad we decided to go. This weekend was just what I needed right now–a last reminder of the people and places that make Ireland so special.

We’re Moving To California!?!

Yep, that’s right, we’re moving to California–and we’re just as shocked and surprised as you are. What was supposed to be a two-year stint in Ireland will be cut off right after the one-year mark. So, how did all of this come about? I’m glad you asked.

A few months ago Jon was contacted by a recruiter from Apple Computer. He wasn’t actually looking for a new job at the time, but he was willing to talk to the guy and hear him out. He had some interesting job opportunities available in Jon’s field, so the conversations continued. In fact, the conversations continued for several months and they finally convinced Jon to fly out for a face-to-face interview (which, by the way, is not easy to coordinate when you live half-way around the world and your current employer doesn’t know you’re interviewing for another job so you can’t ask for time off work so you have to fly all the way to California on a Friday, but your connecting flight out of London happens to be cancelled, then they have to re-route you to Boston, you spend the night in an airport, you arrive in San Francisco after your interview is scheduled to begin, you make it to the interview and spend 12 hours being grilled on technical questions even though you haven’t slept in 3 days, then you fly back to Ireland the next day and have be at work again on Monday morning).

After all this, Apple issued a hiring freeze for the team Jon had interviewed with…and nothing happened. No job offer, no more interviews, no more anything. So, we decided to move on.

At this point we had kind of set our hearts on moving back to the States, so we started working with Jon’s current company to coordinate our move back to Seattle. They were very understanding and helped get the ball rolling for the Big Move. We even had movers scheduled to come out to our house in Ireland a couple of weeks ago (June 26th) so we could have our first official moving assessment completed. Then, three days before the movers were supposed to show up, we got a phone call.

Apple was back, and this time they had a job offer. The hiring freeze was over, and Jon was the first person they called. They wanted to hire him. The job would be an incredible opportunity–both for Jon in his career and for our family–so we decided to go for it.  And that is how–literally overnight–we went from living in Ireland and potentially moving back to Seattle to being ready to move to California.

Our move will be happening the last week of July, so we still have a few more weeks to enjoy the Irish summer. This has been an unexpected week in what I’m sure will turn in to a very unexpected year for us. There are so many details of this turn of events that are evidence of God’s hand in our lives. Many, many prayers have been answered and we are truly grateful and humbled by the whole thing.

And even though we are thrilled, we are also a bit nervous and a bit sad. Nervous for having to uproot our family and start over in a new place yet again. Sad to be leaving Ireland after one short year. Even though our time here has been brief, we have cultivated new friendships and have started to grow our roots–shallow as they may be– in the community. Leaving now feels premature, and I know that I will be leaving a piece of my heart here in Ireland. There are so many things and so many people that we will miss dearly when we move. And yet, it is time.

On the other hand, we are also looking forward to continuing another adventure that we had left behind. It has been almost exactly 4 years to the day since we left our tiny apartment in Palo Alto and moved back up to Washington. Even though it hasn’t been that long, that season of our life seems like it was a whole lifetime ago. Since then we’ve had two babies, Jon and I have both had career changes (he went from grad student to worker, and I went from worker to Mommy), and we’ve moved to Ireland. It will be so fun to return to the Bay Area, reconnect with old friends…and soak in the California sunshine (I’m thinking we may just campout in someone’s back yard for the first few months so I never have to go inside!).

I will post moving updates here on the blog, so check back if you want to see our progress.  Thanks for all of your support, friends, and I can’t wait to see what is in store for us in this next adventure!

 

An Irish Country Fair

There are so many reasons why I love summer: the sunshine, the days that never end, going for walks outside after dinner…in the daylight…while wearing a t-shirt. And there is no better place to enjoy the long, warm days of summer than at a good old fashioned country fair.

When I found out that one of the largest fairs in Ireland was taking place this weekend in West Cork, I just knew I had to go. I mean, how could we not see a country fair in a country that is known for their country-ness? Jon is travelling in Korea for work this week, so it was just me and the boys. We skipped out of town on Sunday morning and headed out to the Charleville Agricultural Show, located an hour west of our home in Cork.

We got to the fair at 10:00, about an hour after the gates had formally opened for the day. As is commonly the case here in Ireland, we were one of the first ones to arrive for the festivities. Our first stop was at the horse jumping centre where the riders were doing some practice runs. Jacob was obsessed with the horses and kept screeching (much to the annoyance of the horses): “That one! So fast! Horsey running!”

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After getting our fill of so-fast-horseys we made our way through the maze of vendor stalls. The brightly-colored toys and balloons caught the boys’ attention. And, since I want to coerce them into enjoying the fair as much as I do, I indulged them each with a new ball. The boys thought they’d won the lottery.

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I decided to take advantage of some momentary peace while the boys sat contentedly in the stroller admiring their new balls. We continued browsing the vendor stalls, where they were selling everything from clothing to ancient-looking farm tools to homemade jams to high-tech cow milking stations. True story. I even bought myself a little souvenir from one of the antiques stands, a metal sign that I will hang outside our house. It reads Cead Mile Failte, which translates to “a hundred thousand welcomes”. Reflecting upon our time here in Ireland, I can not think of a more fitting phrase to display in our home.

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After shopping time was over, we moved on to the vintage car and tractor show. Here’s David “driving” a restored 1915 tractor:

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Then it was on to the amusement park rides. Most of the rides were a bit too big for my little guys, so we spent our time on a huge inflatable slide. It was a hit.IMG_6493

One of my favorite sections at the fair was the old time crafts exhibit. They had people there demonstrating how to make felt from wool, weave wicker baskets, and chisel letters into stone. David even got to help a woman spin yarn on an old-fashioned spinning wheel. They started by “brushing” the wool (which came from the sheep shearing demo at the fair earlier in the day) with these huge roller brushes. Then they fed the smooth wool into the spinning wheel and wove two bobbins of string together to make the yarn. Grammy Pete would have been impressed!IMG_6511

David also tried his hand at metal-working. A very brave craftsman (with very tough looking hands) allowed my three-year old to bang a hammer on a metal rod that he was holding.IMG_6519

The end result was a copper leaf, which was then hung from a string and worn with pride for the rest of the day:IMG_6523

After our busy morning, we needed some nourishment (nevermind that we’d already eaten cotton candy and ice cream before 11:00). We noshed on some burgers and fries…because what else would you eat at the fair?IMG_6530 After lunch we wandered around some more and found some cookery demos. At one table they were churning butter by hand–and giving out free samples. It was the most creamy smooth butter I’ve ever tasted. We liked the butter so much that I bought a big tub of it to bring home. After all, who knows when the next time is that I’ll have access to hand-churned butter.IMG_6532 Before calling it a day we made one last stop in the arts and crafts tent to check out the local talent. There was kids’ artwork, handmade Limerick lace, poetry, and lots of home baking. I, of course, wanted to sneak a taste of every cake I walked past, but I managed to restrain myself:IMG_6533At this point Jacob had fallen asleep in the stroller and David was on the verge of three-year old meltdown, so I read the signs and made my way back to the car (which was parked conveniently close to the exit, due to our “early” arrival that morning). When I asked the boys later that evening what their favorite part of the fair was they both said, “EVERYTHING!”.

And that, my friends, is what we call a success.

A Week In The Life of An Irish Summer

This was a significant week in Ireland: Summer finally made her appearance. For the past 10 days we have had nothing but blue skies and sunshine–quite the welcome change from the typical Irish summer, which is only differentiated from winter by the fact that the rain is warmer.

Like most people who have lived their whole lives in cold, rainy places I go a bit manic when the sun actually comes out. I feel like I have to spend every waking moment outside soaking in enough Vitamin-D to get make up for months of deprivation. I can not, will not let a single sunny moment go to waste (especially since the rain is predicted to return tomorrow). It’s difficult to squeeze a whole season’s worth of activities into a single week, but we gave it our best effort. Here is a little snapshot of how we spent our week of Irish summer.

Monday:
We started our sunshine week with a little hike. There is a wonderful trail, which we have dubbed “Blackberry Trail”, that starts right behind our house. The trail winds for miles and miles through the woods, along a stream, and up into the hills where you can explore the ruins of an old manor. As always, the boys’ favorite activity was throwing rocks into the stream. They will literally spend hours there just picking up stones and chucking them in the water:

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After all of our hard work hiking and throwing stones, we needed a little refreshment. Popscicles (called “ice lollies” here) were the perfect reward. Many, many Popscicles were consumed this week!

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Tuesday:
On Tuesday we stayed home and made use of our fantastic back yard. Inspired by the World Cup that started this week, David practiced his soccer skills:IMG_6108We also spent a good portion of the day splashing and playing in our new blow-up kiddie pool:

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Wednesday:
What is summer without a day at the beach? On Wednesday afternoon we met up with some friends at a wonderful beach called Garrettstown Beach, just past Kinsale in East Cork. Garrettstown Beach is a Blue Flag beach, a distinction given to the loveliest beaches in Europe. We had a relaxing afternoon visiting with our friends, digging in the sand and splashing in the waves:
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On our drive home after the beach we made a slight detour to view Old Head, perhaps the most scenic and exclusive golf course in Ireland (it’s a favorite of Tiger Woods, I hear). You have to be a registered guest to enter the grounds at Old Head, but the viewpoint overlooking the area was still stunning:

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That night as I was folding clothes on the picnic table in the back yard (why not?) the sky caught my attention. As the sun began to set, light was bouncing off the clouds–it felt like a slice of heaven (minus the clothes-folding):

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Thursday:
While David was at preschool, Jacob and I went on our usual Thursday morning jaunt to the Farmer’s Market. The market was full of local delights that are just coming into season: berries, rhubarb, peas, gelato, and bunches of beautiful flowers:

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After the Farmer’s Market Jacob helped me hang our laundry out to dry. He actually is a very good helper, and his favorite “game” is handing me clothespins (and then scattering the bag of pins all over the yard). He also loves running through the lines and playing peek-a-boo behind the clothes:

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On Thursday night I went out for a fun evening road race at our local pub. Yep, that’s right, a legit pub run. I was expecting a small neighborhood gathering, maybe 100 people, to be at the race. I was quite surprised then to see not dozens, but thousands of runners all turned out for the race. The race started at the Mount Oval Bar (next door to David’s preschool) and wound it’s way for 6 miles through the surrounding neighborhoods and farms. It was a beautiful course, I finished in my goal time, and there were beer and free burgers at the finish line. It was the perfect race, really:

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Friday:
We spent Friday at our local zoo, Fota Wildlife Park. Fota is one of our favorite places to visit–there are fun playgrounds, beautiful landscapes and, of course, plenty of animals to spy on! The park is laid out so that you feel like you are actually entering the animals’ turf. There are very few fences or barriers to the animals so you can get up close to them and see how they behave in a more natural environment. Our favorite animals are always the cheetahs, the monkeys, and the giraffes (including the babies that we’ve been watching grow up this year):

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We also got to view Dourga, one of the new tigers that just arrived at Fota a few weeks ago (thankfully for us, she is inside a proper enclosure–I don’t think any of us would want an up close and personal experience with a jungle cat!):
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On Friday night, I went out on a date with this handsome man:

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For our date we went into Cork City and saw Pulses of Tradition, a traditional Irish music and dance show. It was a wonderful performance with highly entertaining musicians who had us laughing and clapping and singing the whole night (we also picked up a few interesting tidbits about the history of dance and music in Ireland). After the show we stopped by our Local for some drinks before heading home. The pub was hosting a “craft beer festival”, which piqued Jon’s interest as he’s been on the lookout for a proper IPA ever since leaving Seattle. Unfortunately, the beers were not quite up to our (snobbish?) Seattleite standards–but we did enjoy a good bit of craic.

Saturday:
We lounged around for quite awhile on Saturday morning while Jon and I took turns catching up on our sleep. We did manage to squeeze in a little play time at the playground in Passage West before it was Jacob’s turn for a nap:

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While Jacob was sleeping, Jon snuck out to get a massage (his Father’s Day gift). After nap time we walked up to Mount Oval Bar (for the third time in 3 days) for a family fun fair they were hosting. The boys loved jumping in the bouncy house (and, judging by this photo, they also enjoyed bouncing on other children):

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There was also a see-and-touch animal show, face painting, a guy making balloon animals, BBQ…and the creepiest ice cream truck I’ve ever seen:IMG_6304

Since Saturday was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, we celebrated in style. The kids were driving us crazy so we put them to bed at 7:30, then we shared a bottle of wine, and went to bed before the sun even set. Hey, nobody ever said parenthood was glamorous.

Sunday:
The last day of our sun week, Sunday, had arrived. Before church we went out in the field across the street from our house to practice our golf swings. Perhaps the boys were inspired by the Irish Open (the largest golf tournament in Ireland) that was happening right here in Cork this weekend:IMG_6311Before we went back inside, David wanted to pick some flowers to make a “centerpiece”. He found quite a lovely collection right in our driveway, and proudly displayed his pickings:

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After church we came home, ate lunch, and got ready for our afternoon. Our plans were set aside, however, when the boys fell asleep while watching Engineering lectures with Jon (not sure how they could possibly fall asleep during such a thrilling activity…). I spent my surprise afternoon “off” curled up with a new book–the perfect luxury to end our season-week of summer.

We had a memorable week exploring the treasures that are right here in Cork. And, I have to say, summer in Ireland is pretty amazing–even if it does only last for a week!

Canary Islands Vacation

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Last week was a big week for us with much to celebrate: my birthday, our wedding anniversary, and Father’s Day. With all of these big events happening in the same week, we thought it would be exciting to take a once-in-a-life time family vacation. Our destination: Lanzarote in Spain’s Canary Islands.

We left for Lanzarote in the wee hours of the morning on Sunday, June 8th. Our taxi to the airport picked us up at 4:00 in the morning and we boarded our plane before the summer sun even had a chance to greet us:
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We decided to try out Ryanair, a budget airline, for the first time. We’d heard mixed reviews about the airline: yes, it’s cheap (we’re talking $15 tickets from Dublin to London…CHEAP) but it comes at a price. Ryanair has very strict baggage requirements and you pay extra for every little thing, so we’ve been hesitant to fly with them and our kids and our 5 billion things that our kids require every time we leave our house for even 5 minutes. In the end, though, they were much more lax than we’d heard, we had comfortable flights and, most importantly, we saved ourselves loads of money.

Landing at the Lanzarote airport feels like you’re going to crash into the ocean. It was quite thrilling. The runway is only a few meters from the beach, so as you’re dropping down from the sky at 100 MPH it feels like you’re actually dive-bombing into the sea. Luckily we landed on solid ground and our vacation could continue as planned:

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We rented a car for the first few days so we could explore a bit of the tiny island before retreating to the confines of our resort and the beaches for the second half of the week.  As we were driving from the airport out to the resort I was struck by the landscape. The whole island of Lanzarote is volcanic, and in the late-1700’s there were non-stop volcano eruptions for 6 straight years. As a result, the topography consists entirely of volcanic rock and, when you approach the ocean, sand. There are no plants (except for the palm trees the resort-builders have planted) and almost no native wildlife (except for fish and bugs). I kept getting the sense that we had actually landed on Mars rather than being 78 miles off the coast of West Africa:

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The land is so barren, in fact, that there are no sources of fresh water on the island. This could pose a problem for anyone who, you know, wanted to survive for more than 24 hours. Thankfully the resort builders thought this one through, too, and they have built desalination plants all over the island. These desalination plants turn the plentiful salt water from the surrounding ocean into clean water (well, clean enough to wash your hands with and take a shower in…you still can’t drink it or anything). I’m pretty sure the island also keeps the bottled water companies in business year round with the demand for drinking water.

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When we got to our resort (the Lanzarote Gardens, if you’re keen to know) we checked in and dropped our bags off in our room. We had a bungalow, a nice two-level place with a kitchenette and two outdoor patios. It was perfect for our family and right across the way from the swimming pools and children’s areas. Then, after we’d gotten settled in, it was time to explore Lanzarote!

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For our first full day in Lanzarote we decided to go out on a glass-bottomed boat tour. We met our boat in the nearby town of Playa Blanca (Well, actually every town in Lanzarote is “nearby”. You can literally drive from one end of the island to the other, in any direction, and be there in about an hour).

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The boat ride itself was lovely. We had a jovial captain who grew up on the island in the pre-resort days when there was nothing on the island but a few fishermen’s shacks down on the beach. He gave us a brief history of the island as we sailed past beaches and towns and soaked in our often-missed sunshine.

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Unfortunately, the “glass-bottomed” part of the boat was a bit disappointing. We saw a few fish and sea urchins and a starfish when we were close to the harbor where our boat docked. Other than that, though, there was not much to see in the water. Despite the lack of underwater viewings, we thoroughly enjoyed our little boat ride.

The next day, Tuesday, was my birthday! It was definitely one of the most memorable birthdays I’ve ever had. We spent the day exploring Timanfaya National Park (also known as “Fire Mountain Park”):

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Upon entering the park you are greeted by hundreds of camels, just waiting to give the obliging tourist a ride up into the lava-rock hills:

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We were more than obliging, so we saddled right up and went on our first family camel-trek. Our camel (who we nicknamed “Rocky”) hated us. He kept glaring at us and trying to sit down when his camel friends were scurrying up the path. Sorry, Rocky–I wouldn’t want to carry four heavy people (including two squirmy, kicky, hair-pulley little people) anywhere, let alone up a mountain. But we thank you, anyway. It was an epic adventure:

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After our camel ride we drove to the top of the mountain where there is a visitor center and restaurant. It being lunchtime on my birthday, we decided to go into the restaurant for our afternoon meal. There were floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the restaurant for a 360 degree view of the park. It was breathtaking:

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Amazing as the views were, though, that was not the best part of the restaurant. No, the best part was the food–or, rather, the way they cook the food there. You see, instead of cooking with a boring old stove they cook over the heat of a volcano. That’s right, a volcano BBQ. The volcano we were perched upon still produces a good amount of heat and fire, so they set up their cookery right over one of the hot spots. I’d never seen anything like it before (and, by the way, everything was delicious!):

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While we were dining we could also look out the windows from the restaurant and watch a steam show. One of the park rangers would dump water into special vents that were placed over some of the hot spots in the ground and steam would burst out, kind of like a geyser. Cheap thrills, folks:IMG_6113

After lunch we hopped on one of the waiting buses for a 40-minute guided tour of the park. We gazed down into calderas and marveled at the 30 different types of lichen growing on the volcanic rocks and drove through the middle of ancient lava floes:IMG_6271

Our tour of Timanfaya concluded our exploration of the island. There were a few more sites we could have visited, but we really just wanted to spend the rest of the week relaxing at our resort. So that’s exactly what we did.

We spent countless hours at the resort’s 3 pools. David and Jon are part-fish, so they are right at home when they’re in the water:

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The water was a bit cool for my comfort (If the water’s not warm enough for me to fall asleep with a pina colada in one hand and a good book in the other, then I’m just going to stay on dry land). Jacob felt a bit the same way as me, so we set up shop on the lounge chairs. We had a good vantage point from our poolside perch to watch David jumping and splashing and sliding to his little heart’s delight:

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Just across the street from our resort was Las Cucharas beach, a lovely white sand beach with a swimming area and plenty of space for water sports (windsurfing seemed to be the most popular choice). We spent a few afternoons at the beach building sandcastles…
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…and frolicking in the ocean:IMG_5803

There is a beautiful promenade that follows the coastline. I followed the promenade for a few miles one day and couldn’t see the end of it, so I’m not sure how far it actually goes if you want to walk/run/cycle the whole thing. We had a great time walking down the promenade and taking in the stunning views:
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Another favorite resort activity we enjoyed was Kids Club. Kids Club is a magical place at the resort where parents can drop their kids off so they can run off and enjoy a few hours swimming or beaching or napping. While Mom and Dad are off doing boring grown-up stuff the kids play games, make crafts, and get hyped up for the World Cup (alright, I’m sure that’s not the case most of the time, but this being the first week of the World Cup–and Europeans being obsessed with soccer–it was kind of a big deal):

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There were also two playgrounds at the resort where we could take the boys to run around and burn off some of their boundless energy:IMG_5836

 

After playing hard all day, we were usually pretty hungry. We had a half-board package at the resort (breakfast and dinner included), so we enjoyed most of our meals at the on-site restaurant. Everything was buffet-style–lots of meats, potatoes, pastas, salads, and international cuisines:

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There was even a separate childrens’ buffet with kid-friendly fare like hot dogs, chicken nuggets, spaghetti, and Jell-O. Lots and lots of Jell-O:

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We all agreed that the best buffet in the restaurant, though, was the dessert buffet. Ice cream, pies, cakes, cookies, fresh fruit and even a chocolate fountain. Yummmmmmm….IMG_5774

Each night there was entertainment at the resort. There were shows for adults–Chinese acrobats, musicians, dancing, theater–but we didn’t see any of them because they didn’t start until 9:30 and, well, we’re old and that’s our bedtime. We did, however, go to the kids’ dance party “Daisy Disco” most nights after dinner. David and Jacob loved singing and dancing and parading around the room with clowns and throngs of other children:

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On Thursday Jon and I celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary! It was a special day, so we celebrated with some special activities. We went for a family walk on the beach and re-created one of our favorite wedding photos. My how our family has grown in the last 9 years!

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For our final anniversary celebration we went out to a nice dinner in town. The menus–as with everything in Lanzarote–were written in three languages: Spanish (because we’re in Spain), English and German (the last two languages being for the tourists. There are LOTS of German tourists in Lanzarote):

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We went out for Mexican food and it was delicious. We drank margaritas and ate burritos and jalapeno poppers. We had a wonderful time, despite having our third- and fourth-wheels (our children) with us for our romantic evening out. And, just so we wouldn’t forget this memorable anniversary, the kids also decided to get sick at dinner. Jacob threw up all over me and had a diaper explode with diarrhea (sorry, TMI?) but, like I said, it was…memorable.

Our poor kids spent the last couple of days going in and out of yucky sickness. This meant that they also had a hard time sleeping–which meant none of us slept. One morning Jacob was up almost all night so, at about 5:00 AM, I decided to take him for a little walk to see if I could get him to fall asleep. We ended up walking up and down the beaches for two hours–my poor sick baby never fell asleep, but we did catch a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean:

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Despite everyone feeling a bit yucky, we still managed to squeeze in some fun during our last couple of days in Lanzarote. We even found “The Fish Spa”–a very unique experience, for sure! You basically put your feet in these giant fish tanks where swarms of little fish nibble dead skin off your feet. It sounds weird…and it is. But it was fun and kind of tingly and I’d do it again!IMG_6014We blinked and then it was Sunday again, time to go back home. Sunday happened to be David’s day to be sick, so we stuffed plastic bags in our pockets (to contain the inevitable sickness), packed our bags, and headed to the airport. Poor little David was so sick that he fell asleep in the airport waiting for our plane…and he didn’t wake up until 5 hours later when we touched down in Ireland:
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Volcanoes, camels, beaches, swimming pools, boat rides, sunshine, and some good quality time with the people I love the most–I couldn’t ask for a better vacation (well, maybe minus the sickness). Many memories were made, much fun was had, and much joy was celebrated. It was definitely a vacation none of us will ever forget!

Foods of Ireland

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you’ve probably realized a few things about me: I can’t wait for my next adventure, my kids are pretty rad, and I love food. I love eating food, I love cooking food (when my rad kids aren’t getting in the way), I love reading about food. I even love just looking at food. This is not a new thing. In fact, my mom has always joked with me that all of my memories in life are somehow tied to food–what we were eating at a certain pivotal point in my life, the restaurant we visited on a vacation, the food that was served at an event. It is no wonder, then, that the food of Ireland has enthralled me.

Much of the food in Ireland is similar to food available in America. There are a few culinary delights that stand out to me, though, and I’d like to share them with you. Some of these unique-to-Ireland foods are common throughout the country, and others are more indigenous to my “native” County Cork (which, by the way, produces the best food in the country. It’s a foodie’s dream, really). Now, here are some of my favorite Irish foods:

Potatoes: In the case of the Irish, the stereotype is true: they love potatoes. At the grocery store there are at least a dozen varieties of potatoes to choose from (and none of them are the basic Russet baking potato that is prevalent in America). Every meal is served with some form of potato: mashed, fried, baked, roasted, boiled, stewed. The humble potato still reigns supreme.

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Tayto Crisps: And, while we’re on the topic of potatoes, let’s not forget about Tayto crisps (a brand of potato chips). The traditional flavor is cheese and onion, although many varieties are available. These chips are so popular that one of the largest amusement parks in the country, Tayto Park, is named after them.

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Cottage Pie: This is also known as shepherd’s pie (although cottage pie is typically made with beef  and shepherd’s pie uses lamb). Meat, veg, and gravy topped with–you guessed it–potatoes. It’s easy to make, delicious, and one of my favorite ways to use up leftover mashed potatoes. Win, win, win.

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Lamb: I can not get my 3-year old to eat any meat, with one exception: Irish lamb. My son will quite literally eat a whole leg of Irish lamb if it is offered to him. It’s both interesting and completely disturbing. I don’t blame him, though. The lamb here is fresh and succulent (probably because the sheep here are so dang happy. They spend their days contentedly roaming the lush green rolling hills out in the countryside without a care in the world. Except perhaps the butcher. But I doubt they even notice he’s coming for their intent efforts at grazing all day. When one of their sheep friends go missing they probably just assume he’s wandered off to some other lusher greener pasture on the other side of the hill).

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Offal: Pig’s hooves. Yep. Pig feet. I see them every week in the butcher but I can not, will not bring myself to eat them. Offal actually refers to any bits of the animal that you would not find in your typical Michelin-Star restaurant: ears, eyes, internal organs and such. Scrumptious. Much of traditional Irish food originated in peasant cooking where it was not only practical, but absolutely necessary to eat “everything but the snout” (which, I understand, can be quite rubbery).

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Clonakilty Black Pudding: Don’t let the name deceive you. This “pudding” is not referring to a smooth and creamy dark chocolate dessert. No, this is blood sausage, generally made from pork blood and oatmeal (yummmmm….). It is a key component to the Full Irish Breakfast (see next entry):

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The Full Irish Breakfast: Mom always said that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. The Irish have taken this sentiment to heart, and the traditional Irish breakfast is enough food to put you in a coma (or gear you up for a day of hard labor on your farm). The “Full Irish” consists of black pudding, sausage, rashers (bacon), eggs, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, potatoes, baked beans, toast, and tea. You can go to any restaurant in the country and order a “Full Irish”–just bring your appetite!

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Fresh Seafood: Ireland is an island. Which means the country is literally surrounded by oceans teeming with seafood. There is not a single day that goes by and I don’t see a truck or a stand on the side of the road selling fresh Atlantic fish that was caught that morning. I’m a bit of a seafood-phobic so I don’t take advantage of the abundant offerings. But if I were a lover rather than a hater, I’d be spoiled for choice. Pollock, Cod, Hake, Plaice, Monkfish, Prawns, Mussels–all just sitting there in the water waiting for some hungry person to come eat them.

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Scotch Eggs: A hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage or black pudding, breaded, and fried. What’s not to love?

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Pies and Pasties: When someone refers to “pie” in Ireland, they are usually talking about a savory meat or vegetable pie rather than granny’s caramel apple pie. And when they refer to “pasties”, they are usually talking about hand-pies (think of a gourmet Hot Pocket), not the–ahem–little patches that women might wear in place of a brassiere.

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Rocket: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…ROCKET! This leafy salad green (called Arugula back home) is the hip health food of the moment in Ireland. Restaurants and grocery stores advertise rocket as if it’s actually a rock star, not a piece of glorified lettuce. There’s even a guy at my farmer’s market called “The Rocket Man” who makes gourmet salads and juices with rocket. But The Rocket Man may actually be a rock star (I mean, check out that ‘stache!):

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Fresh Dairy Products: You do not have to go far in Ireland to find a farm. In fact, the majority of the land in Ireland is farm land. As a result, you do not have to go far to find good, fresh dairy. Big chain grocery stores stock dairy products from the local dairies, which is pretty awesome. Fresh-from-the-cow milk, country butter, natural yogurt, cream cheese, panna cotta, clotted cream–enough lactose to fuel a nation.

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Gubbeen Cheese: Made on a family farm in West Cork, this cheese is a local delicacy. It has a smooth, rich, savory taste, similar to white cheddar, and it is buttery soft. Gubbeen cheese is made from milk that comes from the family’s cows that graze in their seaside pastures on the farm. And it makes a darn good grilled cheese sandwich.

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Banoffee Pie: A dessert made from bananas, toffee (banana-toffee = banoffee) and cream piled high in a pastry crust. You can find this pie in any coffee shop, tea cafe, restaurant, or supermarket in Ireland. They even have banoffee-flavored yogurt and pudding.

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Scones: Perhaps the single most-consumed food in Ireland (after potatoes, of course), scones are an integral part of daily Irish cuisine. Every time you visit a friend or go to a cafe for a “cuppa” (tea, that is) it is expected that you will be offered freshly-baked scones. Some are plain, some are “fruited” (with raisins or sultanas), all are delicious. They are typically round, about 3 inches across, and about 2 inches high. Scones are typically served with butter, homemade jam (which you can buy in the supermarkets here) and, if you’re lucky, cream (whipped cream or clotted cream…yummmmmm):

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Barry’s Tea: Tea is the lifeblood of Irish culture. If you took tea away from the Irish, the Irish would simply cease to exist. True story. But not just any tea will do. No, you must drink “Gold Tea”, a black tea blend and, more specifically, you must drink Barry’s Gold Tea. None of that hoity-toity herbal stuff. I mean, sure, between cups of Barry’s you might try some Jasmine tea or some orange-spice Chai just to say you’ve done it once in your life, but the purists stick with the real tea. Barry’s tea.

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Elderflower: I think I had heard of Elderflower before we moved to Ireland, but I certainly had never heard of eating it. Turns out, Elderflower is downright delicious. In Ireland you can find Elderflower cordial (concentrate that you add to water to make juice), Elderflower syrup, Elderflower liqueur, and Elderflower tea. Elderflower is made from the flower of the elderberry (which grows plentifully in Ireland) and it has a sweet, aromatic flavor similar to lychee. It is the perfect refreshing summer drink.

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So, there you have it. Now you all know why my pants fit a bit more snugly now that I’ve been living here for a year–Ireland really is a food-lover’s dream come true. The whole idea of “eat local” was born here and, really, it’s the only way people have ever eaten here. With an abundance of fresh ingredients and regional treats, Irish food offers the perfect mix between comfort food and gourmet offerings. All I have to say is, if you’re coming to Ireland, come hungry!